Attachment is a necessity for human life – across the lifespan. Attachment is connection and compassion, it is the relationships with people you trust and who care about you. This blog post explores how screens (including our own) interfere with attachment behaviours and as such can leave children and young people in an attachment void, increasing their peer orientation and peer attachments. Physician Dr. Gabor Maté and Clinical Psychologist Gordon Neufield help put a context around what is biologically required for children and young people, to attach and the challenges for parents “in the digital age”.
Screens and our reliance on them is one of parents, teachers and all who love and care for children and young people’s biggest concern for them. We are concerned by what our young people tell us, we are concerned by what we see on Netflix (Social Dilemma anyone?), we notice it in ourselves and our addictions to screens, work and social media. We are most concerned by the behavior changes we notice. Parents and professionals are concerned about increased addictive behavior, increased mental health concerns (Anxiety, Depression, suicidality), and decreased adult and intergenerational connection and influence in their young person’s life, and the reality is – it is complex. There is a tremendous amount we do not know about the brain, brain development, there is luck, genetics, the environment, the peer group, maturational factors, school, sibling order; the list could go on. However, we can take an approach of trying to understand, with some empathy and nuance, why do children and young people sometimes find themselves in situations where they are practically strangers to the people who care deeply about them and want to connect, and they are overly connected to their peers – much of which is online?
There is a never-ending round of discussion in any parenting group you would care to join on how, when, and what media we should allow access to for our children. Furthermore, this may not be solely a family decision – children may be required to have a device for school, parents may feel it is important to have a phone for safety and/ or accessibility. It is very much a case that the “horse” has well and truly bolted from the barn – so how can we help make it safer for children and young people, for their brains, their minds, and their emerging sense of self?
Here is a typical parental concern you may hear at any gathering of parents with adolescents: “I don’t feel as though I know them at all anymore”, “they come home from school (or spend the day during home learning) and then they are in their room, are on their phone/ laptop/ device – chatting, doing homework, YouTube, online gaming from the minute they get home until they go to bed. I barely see them for dinner.” These struggles have been normalized through our culture – however, my sense is that it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, the young people themselves do not like either. They are uncomfortable, scared, lost, and confused and that is why they turn to the screens in a never-ending loop of attempting to connect, to feel safe, and to sometimes numb the painful feelings they are experiencing.
But first – what is the problem if an adolescent is overly focussed on their peers? The problem is that with the never-ending access to screens and expectations young people have of themselves to be constantly available (via Snapchat, Discord, Messenger, etc.) that this can interfere with their primary caregiver attachments and relationships. Certainly, teens are empathetic, they are kind and thoughtful, they can be fun, delightful, interesting, and intelligent. They however still need an adult, a secure safe trusted caregiver who has wisdom through context, who loves and values them unconditionally, who can help them problem solve, who they are not overly reliant on for their emerging ego development. In other words – we all can benefit from peer relationships, but for a child and a young person, this can become mutually exclusive to the adult caregiver attachment. If at the exact moment when our teenagers need to be held gently, to be contained and celebrated – if they are only left with a culture of fear of exclusion, desperate needs to fit in, to be fulfilling their attachment instinct with their peers rather than a parent or trusted caregiver then we are creating environments that are unsafe for them.
What can we do?
1.) Prioritize family time. Dr. Gordon Neufeld believes that children spend plenty of time with their peers at school. Time outside of school and work (holidays, weekends, etc.) need not to be always socializing with peers. This helps them stay attached to the family and caregivers.
2.) Proximity and connection with all our senses. This means that we adults need to be physically and emotionally available. We as caregivers need to be aware of our own divided attention and screen usage, turn our full attention to them, show and develop an interest in what interests them.
3.) Have shared experiences, both on and off screens. Cultural practices and rites of passage are important for adolescents, it can help anchor them with roots to the community and support emerging identity development.
Gabor Mate and Gordon Neufuld have many resources including “Hold Onto Your Kids” and various lecture series for parents and professionals.